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Keywords:

  • carbon limitation;
  • drought mortality;
  • hydraulic conductance;
  • hydraulic failure;
  • nonstructural carbohydrates;
  • plant strategy

Summary

  • Plant survival during drought requires adequate hydration in living tissues and carbohydrate reserves for maintenance and recovery. We hypothesized that tree growth and hydraulic strategy determines the intensity and duration of the ‘physiological drought’, thereby affecting the relative contributions of loss of hydraulic function and carbohydrate depletion during mortality.
  • We compared patterns in growth rate, water relations, gas exchange and carbohydrate dynamics in three tree species subjected to prolonged drought.
  • Two Eucalyptus species (E. globulus, E. smithii) exhibited high growth rates and water-use resulting in rapid declines in water status and hydraulic conductance. In contrast, conservative growth and water relations in Pinus radiata resulted in longer periods of negative carbon balance and significant depletion of stored carbohydrates in all organs. The ongoing demand for carbohydrates from sustained respiration highlighted the role that duration of drought plays in facilitating carbohydrate consumption.
  • Two drought strategies were revealed, differentiated by plant regulation of water status: plants maximized gas exchange, but were exposed to low water potentials and rapid hydraulic dysfunction; and tight regulation of gas exchange at the cost of carbohydrate depletion. These findings provide evidence for a relationship between hydraulic regulation of water status and carbohydrate depletion during terminal drought.